Charlie Mahoney was not a handsome man. At 60, he was short, bald, stooped and grizzled. The stoop came from back injuries as a jockey. A U-shaped scar on his scalp was further evidence of that career. His appearance wasn’t improved by another career as a flyweight boxer. His ears wiggled from smashed cartilage. The crushed bridge of his nose made his nostrils unnaturally wide.
He was my grandfather, maternal side.
I didn’t see much of him when I was a kid. He only showed up when he was sober. That had gone on for years. Long enough that nuns raised my mother. When I did see him, he was scary. He began most conversations with, “Put your dukes up!”
He was not your sweet, role model granddad kind of guy.
But I did learn from him. One day, when he was around and it was my birthday, he took me to Quakenbush’s, the big department store in downtown Paterson, New Jersey. It had elevators that swooshed from floor to floor, deftly guided by an elevator attendant. It also had huge doors with big shiny brass levers. The whole place smelled new. Charlie bought me a package of Fruit of the Loom briefs because I needed new underwear. I think I was 11.
We didn’t leave by the revolving doors at the front of the store. Instead, we started to leave by a side door. But a grimy, tattered man stopped us. With his arm holding the door open, he stood in our way.
“Can you spare a dime for a cup of coffee,” he asked. (Yes, this was a long time ago. As a kid, my measuring standard was Cokes. They were still a nickel each.)
Charlie fished in his vest pocket and gave the man two quarters.
“Thank you!” The man beamed, then shuffled off. It was more than he had hoped.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Because he didn’t want a cup of coffee.”
“Then what did he want?”
“He wanted a drink.”
“So why did you do it?” I asked again.
“Because it will get him through the day,” Charlie said.
After that, he explained that there were different kinds of drunks in the world. Some were like him. He drank whiskey, most of the time. Sometimes boilermakers, a shot of whiskey dropped in a beer. He’d still get day work, he said, thanks to the Erie Lackawanna railroad or some other place that needed men who could shovel.
But there were other drunks. They were down on their luck. They were pretty far-gone. They couldn’t work anymore. Fifty cents, he said, was enough to buy a small bottle of sneaky Pete. That’s what he called sweet port wine. It’s cheap. It comes in a variety of sizes convenient for the pocket. It has sugar for nourishment. And it has enough alcohol to get by.
You could hope that the guy would go to White Castle and get some burgers, he said, but you could be confident that he would buy sneaky Pete. It would do the trick. It would get the guy through the day.
I understood the lesson he was teaching. Today, some might consider me a “soft touch.” If someone asks for money, I tend to give it. I know the money won’t promote world peace or eradicate poverty. It won’t help more people read and go to college. And it won’t improve inner city education, cure cancer, or bring the lost closer to God.
But it will get them through the day. That has to count for something.
When I talk about this some people look at me funny.
“It’s wasted,” they say.
“It won’t do any good,” they say.
“You’re not solving the problem,” they say.
I want to do a lot of different things when I hear that. Like telling them exactly where they can put their righteousness. Or maybe just punch them in the face, just like Charlie would have done.
Why don’t they know getting things fixed is all about tomorrow?
Until then, lots of people just need to get through today.